Convocation speaker to discuss importance of resiliency

August 16, 2018
Teresa "Tese" Stephens
Registered nurse Teresa "Tese" Stephens, Ph.D., says healthcare organizations must build resilient cultures. Photo provided

When registered nurse Teresa “Tese” Stephens, Ph.D., associate professor in the College of Nursing, started studying resiliency a dozen years ago, she got some perplexed looks. 

“It was viewed as fluff. It wasn’t of critical importance,” she said. “I believed it was, and that’s why I stuck with it.”

Now, as organizations come to understand how clinician burnout and moral distress can affect patient outcomes, provider turnover and even the health and lives of clinicians themselves, the study of resiliency has picked up momentum. 

It’s important for health care providers to develop personal resiliency to deal with the stress and chaotic nature of health care, but it’s just as important for organizations to build resilient cultures and resilient teams, she said. 

She’ll be discussing these twin topics as the keynote speaker during convocation on Aug. 21.

Stephens said health care is facing a burnout epidemic. Studies show physicians die by suicide at twice the rate of the general population. There’s little information about nurses who die by suicide, although a recent review in the United Kingdom determined that female nurses’ risk of suicide was 23 percent higher than the national average. 

Moral distress – internal conflict caused when one cannot do the right thing due to organizational constraints – used to be something that accumulated over the years and showed up later in people’s careers, but that conflict is now showing up in students, Stephens said. 

Stephens started her research focused on nursing students and new nurses. She began exploring the narratives of Holocaust survivors, trying to discern the personal qualities that allowed the survivors to be resilient, and wondered whether resiliency was something that could be taught. 

She now talks about the “Four Ps” of resiliency: priorities, purpose, perspective and personal responsibility. 

During her convocation address, she’ll explain how those factors come into play at the individual level but also at the organizational level. 

Organizations, she said, must focus on “walking the walk” in terms of living out stated values. 

“We do what we can to increase personal resilience, but we also have to be willing to change our mind about what health care is supposed to look like,” she said. “We have found the old ways of doing things and those old philosophies that are very hierarchical in nature –  they do not work.”

Stephens said that soft skills like humility and compassion that were once viewed as a sign of weakness are actually associated with better outcomes. 

Faculty members, as seasoned members of the health care community, have an opportunity to model for students how to embrace MUSC’s five values of compassion, respect, innovation, collaboration and integrity while also providing excellent care, she said. Students and residents need to see that they can change the culture of health care, because many will find themselves taking positions in organizations with unhealthy cultures, she explained. 

Stephens, who’s entering her second year at MUSC, praised MUSC’s culture. As a consultant for several years, she worked with a variety of organizations and began searching for a place that lived out its values, something she said is hard to find in academia and health care because those fields are so entrenched in precedent. 

“It became a quest, really, to find a place that did what was recommended,” she said. 

She heard about MUSC and, on paper, the university looked good. But Stephens wanted to test the waters before committing, so she asked Gigi Smith, Ph.D., RN, executive associate dean for academics in the College of Nursing, if she could teach as an adjunct for a year. After that year, she signed on as an associate professor. 

“What we have here, it’s truly a gift,” she said. “We have made those advances in embracing a values-based culture. We have the opportunity not just to provide that for ourselves, but we have so many people coming through here that are experiencing very unhealthy cultures that need that nurturing and mentoring. How do they go back and change their own cultures?”

About the Author

Leslie Cantu

Keywords: Education